The first batch of performing arts graduates from Sunway University College is set to take the arts scene by storm.
ALTHOUGH it’s located in a higher education institution, Sunway University College's (SyUC) Rooftop Theatre is fast becoming a hotspot for alternative performances in the Klang Valley, not least by students from the institution's Performance + Media Department.
Less than six months since the first batch of graduating students put up an adaptation of
Three Fat Virgins Unassembled by Singaporean playwright Ovidia Yu, the second graduating batch had another successful staging.
Amelia Chan, Tengku Amalia Zahirah and Tracy Jayasinghe performed one of Singapore’s landmark plays, The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole, to full houses for four straight days under the direction of Chee Sek Thim.
The Rooftop Theatre has also hosted various music performances, experimental plays, workshops and even arts seminars since it was set up about two years ago.
Slowly but surely, the department is fulfilling one of its aims, which is to enrich campus life, says Sunway Group’s education and healthcare division chief executive officer Lee Weng Keng.
Lee, who was involved in the establishment of the arts department, says they had wanted to create a balance in students’ lives by having performances and arts events.
“We wanted our students to benefit from having arts activities on campus. We thought they could participate in the activities or enjoy the performances by students from the programme,” he says.
At the same time, he adds, it is a niche area that has not been tapped by private higher education institutions.
Asia is the world’s fastest-growing market for entertainment and culture with a huge demand for skilled, professional content providers in film, television, theatre and others, Lee notes.
So while conventional academic programmes such as business studies or the sciences remain popular, there has been a growing number of students enrolling in the Performance + Media programme at SyUC.
The department offers a two-and-a-half year diploma in performing arts, which includes a final-year performance project and industrial training.
Providing basic skills in performance and video production, the programme gives students entry-level training and education for the entertainment and media industry.
With strong links to the industry, the programme has various practitioners on its teaching faculty including co-heads of department: local playwright Leow Puay Tin and performance artist Dr Ray Langenbach.
Students are also exposed to traditional art forms in workshops. Recently, a few students underwent a series of workshops at Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan (Aswara) with renowned dalang or master puppeteer, Pak Nasir Yusof.
Over five weeks, the students were taught to play traditional musical instruments as well as the art of handling wayang kulit puppets. This culminated in a performance that saw them fusing traditional and modern elements, entitled The Contest for Princess Siti Dewi's Hand.
Leow says arts education can enhance personal development.
“The arts can develop people, even those who are not involved directly in the field.
“You learn various things, from dealing with other people to dealing with your own ego. You need to learn how to deal with failures because as a performer, director or writer, you are judged instantly.”
The process of learning the arts basically entails the development of human potential, Leow adds.
“You learn to use the gift you are endowed with in a creative and life-giving way – working for something that gives pleasure and has meaning, something that will improve both you and society. If you are going to be selfish, undisciplined, lazy, inconsiderate or tardy, sorry, there is no place for you.”
“I personally believe that every young person has potential, but it is a latent ability and can go either way. It depends on the students and how willing they are to tap into and develop it.”
Contrary to popular belief, she adds, there are many career opportunities.
“It’s a big market out there – not just teaching but also conducting arts-related workshops. Other career options are event management, arts writing and even becoming personal assistants,” says Leow.
“I have yet to meet a performance student who has difficulty getting a job.”
For those interested in pursuing a degree, SyUC has a credit transfer agreement with the University of Tasmania in Australia and the University of Lethbridge, Canada, allowing students to continue for another year to earn a degree in performing arts.
Pioneering student Helena Foo, currently doing her industrial training at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac), had originally wanted to pursue game design but found the fees too high.
“Then I came across this programme and decided to give it a try. I even had the chance to explore individual theatre projects.
“It was very different from what we did in school as I had to learn from my mistakes,” she says, adding that she has since discovered an interest in writing and directing.
The programme, according to her, prepares students’ for the real world as they not only have to learn the craft but other skills such as how to write proposals and handle interviews, casting sessions or auditions.
Joylene Teh had to defy her parents’ wishes to pursue her dream.
“In the beginning, my mother could not understand and kept asking me why I wanted to do this and what I am going to do after this, but she finally gave her support.
“Now she is very proud to see how far I have gone. Before this I was shy and quiet but this programme has made me come out of my shell,” says Joylene, who is doing her practical with The Necessary Stage, a theatre group in Singapore.
As for Nurul Ain Mohammed Jamlus, her interest in performance dates back to secondary school days.
“But I did not know about the opportunities then,” she says, adding that she hopes to continue her studies in Tasmania after completing her industrial training at production house Red Communications.
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